Sergeant Drew Peterson was arrested this week for the murder of his third wife Kathleen Savio. This is a complicated and long-running case and I’m sure many of you are familiar with it to some degree. From a forensic point of view it is an interesting case in regards to time of death and more importantly cause and manner of death. Briefly, Kathleen was found dead in her bathtub by a neighbor on March 1, 2004. An autopsy was performed the next day and the cause of death was determined to be drowning and the manner of death as accidental. On October 28, 2007 Drew Peterson’s fourth wife Stacy Peterson went missing and as of this date has not been found. Gee, wonder what happened to her? On November 13, 2007, Kathleen’s body was exhumed and another autopsy was performed by Dr. Larry Blum and three days later a third autopsy was performed by Dr. Michael Baden at the request of the Savio family. Drs. Blum and Baden each concluded that the cause of death was drowning but the manner of death was homicide. A homicide investigation was then launched. It is interesting however that as late as April of 2009 Kathleen’s death certificate continued to list the matter of death as accidental. This prompted her family to file a wrongful death suit and then this week Drew was arrested for first degree murder. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months. Drew Peterson’s arraignment on the criminal charges is scheduled for later this month.
The first issue that this case brings up is the time of death. This can be crucial in any case since witness statements and alibis sink or swim based upon the time of death. Since Kathleen’s body was not found until the next day many hours had passed after her untimely death and such a time lag can make determining an accurate time of death very difficult. There is a bit of controversy around exactly where Drew Peterson was at various times on the day and evening prior to Kathleen’s body being found, so the time of death is somewhat muddy here and could play an important role in the upcoming trial.
Of greater interest is the matter of cause and manner of death. In forensic terms the cause of death is simply what caused the person to die. Things such as heart attacks, strokes, blunt head trauma with intracranial bleeding, and drowning would be causes of death. Typically the cause of death is fairly straightforward though not always. Of greater importance is the manner of death. There are five manners of death: natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal, an undetermined. The latter category is used when the manner cannot be accurately determined.
The manner of death is critical in determining whether any police investigation will follow. Needless to say, for natural deaths no investigation will be launched and rarely will they be launched in accidental or suicidal deaths. In accidental deaths, if they are related to an industrial problem or a worksite death, then a police investigation might be launched and in suicidal deaths sometimes the family will request an investigation or an insurance company will if the payout is dependent upon the manner of death, such as a plan not paying for suicidal death where they would pay for an accidental death. In Kathleen’s case the changing of the manner of death from accidental to homicidal was the basis for the current police investigation and for the arrest of Drew Peterson this week.
I should point out that the cause and manner of death are never written in stone and can be changed at any time by the medical examiner if he is presented with evidence that would cause a shift in his determination. For example, an elderly person may have died and the death was presumed to have been natural from old age or a heart attack or some other ailment the person had. The treating physician would most likely have signed the death certificate, the coroner accepted it, and the poor soul was buried. Happens like this all the time. What if several months later a family member or an insurance company or a police investigation of another matter turned up evidence that suggested that this death might not have been natural? Maybe money was involved or jealousy or any one of the other reasons people kill each other. What if the body is then exhumed and a large amount of arsenic is found within the tissues? The manner of death might then be changed from natural to homicidal. Let me give you another interesting example. Let’s say that individual is shot in the chest and is hospitalized for many weeks but recovers and is sent home. But as a complication of his lung injury he developed pneumonia, returned to the hospital, and then died of his pneumonia. Would this be a natural death from a lung infection? No. Though the cause of death would be pneumonia, a natural phenomenon, the manner of death would be homicidal. The reason is that the gunshot to the chest was what started the cascade that ended in the victim’s death.
So what happened in Kathleen’s case? What did Drs. Blum and Baden see that cause them to change the manner of death from accidental to homicidal? Apparently Kathleen had a contusion and a laceration of her scalp that was more consistent with a blow to the head than a fall against the smooth bathtub, thought he later could not be completely ruled out. But she also had multiple other bruises and injuries on her body that were not consistent with someone simply falling, hitting their head, losing consciousness, and drowning. I should point out that with the exception of infants and very small children no one drowns in the bathtub unless they are unconscious. The autopsy findings are more consistent with an altercation that included multiple bodily injuries and a blow to the head that probably rendered her unconscious and then a drowning in the bath tub. Since Kathleen did not beat herself up and drown herself, the hand of someone else must’ve been involved. What you think the odds are that that person was Drew Peterson? Now we just have to wait and see what the courts decide.
The complicated and often controversial determinations of the time, cause, and manner of death are great fodder for storytelling. These three determinations are the most important issues that medical examiners face on a regular basis. They are often a best guess and can, as I stated above, be changed as more evidence is revealed. Whenever you read about murder cases or see them on TV, keep these issues in mind and you might see real-life cases in an entirely different light and it just might spark something that you can use in your stories.